NEW YORK — It’s sometimes easy to forget that over 99% of the world isn’t Jewish. (We’re about 15 million behind the Sikhs, but we’re whoopin’ the Confucianists by about 7 million, according to a chart I found on the internet.) Anti-Semites might cry that we have an outsized voice, particularly in Western popular culture, but I say we spin this around into a boast. There are so few of us — and we’re awesome!
Two extremely awesome Jews are Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach. Zweibel is a comedy writer and producer who, in addition to many other things, worked on the first seasons of “Saturday Night Live” and co-created “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”
Mansbach, a generation younger, is the author of the runaway bestseller “Go The Fuck To Sleep,” the finest work of literature intended for audiences who don’t yet recognize language — or at least their parents. And among the most righteous Gentiles of our time is Dave Barry, the humor columnist whose collected works have adorned bathrooms for decades.
Barry, whose wife and daughter are Jewish and is just so funny there must be a Schwartz or Birnbaum in his family tree somewhere, has teamed with Zweibel and Mansbach on a very important text.
“A Field Guide to the Jewish People: Who They Are, Where They Come From, What To Feed Them… and Much More. Maybe Too Much More” is a useful aid for Gentiles and Jews alike. It rolls its sleeves up to explain just what the heck the deal is with the Chosen People.
Separated into short chapters (Barry’s on-the-throne publishing legacy lives on!) it details Jewish traditions like the bar mitzvah, holidays like Tisha B’Av, and explains curious terms such as “the Shabbos Goy.” The section dedicated to “The Bris” had me cracking up so hard I nearly choked.
Depending on how in touch you are with your Hebraic heritage will determine how much you learn from this tome, but one thing is guaranteed: you will laugh.
After getting my hands on the book for a few hours I was able to get both Barry and Zweibel on a conference call. Mansbach was too busy for us, I guess.
Below is an edited transcript of my conversation with the two mensches who found time.
Hello, this is Jordan Hoffman. Anyone else on the line?
Dave Barry: This is Dave Barry, and I’m on 8th Avenue headed to Penn Station so I apologize if I drop out.
Alan Zweibel: Hello? This is Alan.
Hi Alan. Dave is here, too, but he’s wandering Midtown. He may accidentally wander into a Broadway show.
AZ: Okay, you and I will talk until Dave comes out during intermission.
DB: No, no, I’ll talk during the show. People like that.
I’ve been going through the book all morning. What is the process like for three people to work on one book? Do you each do a section and then pass it along for more jokes?
DB: Adam Mansbach, who isn’t on this call, he divided all Judaism into subjects and sent these subjects in emails to Alan and me. And then we ignored them, for the most part. As far as editing each other’s work, there wasn’t a lot of that. To be honest, we just deleted most of what Alan sent in.
AZ: My stuff went straight to their spam folders. Completely ignored.
No, Dave is right, Adam made a big list of subjects we should cover. He sent the list to Dave and I, and, well, sometimes we followed that list. We knew eventually we’d cover certain topics. But we wrote what we wanted to and sent it in to the others.
DB: We had a lot of leeway, really.
AZ: I didn’t even know Dave contributed to it, honestly.
DB: This is the first I’m hearing that Alan was involved.
Was there an internal “zings-per-minute” rule?
DB: Chuckles-per-minute. CPM. Yes, a standard. Plus a guffaw now and then.
AZ: CPM and GP, uh, 15m. Yeah.
DB: Oh boy. He’s not too good with math.
AZ: I know. I just threw my back out trying to figure that shit out. I was better at history.
Speaking of history, you have some outstanding quotes from the Kotzker Rebbe.
DB: Real quotes! Those are real.
I was cracking up … then I figured I should Google to make sure it wasn’t a bit.
DB: I am the one who put those in there and I was wondering “How can I make it clear that these were real?” Obviously I did not succeed!
But this guy… he was funny! If he were around now he would definitely have replaced Alan as one of the three authors of this book.
AZ: I was hoping one of those Rabbis would replace me. I had other stuff to do.
By page 12 of this book there are a bunch of jokes about the NBA. Why do Jews love basketball so much?
AZ: I’m not sure. Dolph Schayes was probably the last great Jewish basketball player.
DB: He had a vertical leap of about three inches.
AZ: But my father talked about him all the time, like I talk about Sandy Koufax. We Jews, we take an athlete and really hold on — we squeeze the shit out of them until the next one comes along. When Bill Russell retired from the Celtics he was replaced by a guy named Henry Finkel.
DB: I remember Henry Finkel! And that was the end of the dynasty right there.
[Dave and Alan start talking about long forgotten basketball teams and players.]
DB: Jordan, are you still on the phone?
DB: Okay, just wanted to make sure this was still an interview.
Well, one thing you say in the book is that the cinnamon raisin bagel is for anti-Semites, and I’m not so sure I agree.
DB: Okay, so I’m going to hang up now!
It’s okay with butter.
DB: What, you put butter on it?
Yes. I would not go with cream cheese on that, but for butter, it kinda works as a sweet treat.
DB: Okay, so how do I know you are Jewish now?
AZ: This whole conversation is a shanda fur die goyim! (An embarrassment for the Jews.)
Fair enough. So, Dave, you’ve been very forthcoming that, technically, you are not a member of the tribe, but your wife and kid are, and your pal Alan is, and many other friends. So I’m wondering, do you think that this is why you were put here? To be a bridge between the Jews and Gentiles?
DB: Yes. Do I get a discount? Because I am mostly in it for the discount.
I love that the ending of the book is just an —
DB: Wait, a really loud truck just went by, you love what?
AZ: He said he loves me, Dave!
No, I said I love that it concludes with an avalanche of Jewish jokes.
DB: Well, Adam would be the first to tell you that’s in there because it was the only way to reach our contractual word count. But some of the jokes that are attributed to me were written by Alan or Adam — I didn’t actually know a lot of those.
Alan, were there some in there you wanted to include but ultimately killed?
AZ: We wanted ones that maybe people hadn’t heard too many times. We just did an event at the 92nd Street Y and we told a lot of Jewish jokes, and everyone was very responsive, and that’s a crowd that’s probably heard them all.
The book does tackle some serious topics like the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. “Do Jews have horns?” has the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen — I can’t believe I never heard that one before. [You have to buy the book to hear it.] But 2019 is a little different than it was maybe 15 years ago with regard to anti-Semitism in Europe and North America. Did you worry about threading the comedy needle there?
AZ: We have been doing some publicity this week and this question comes up. And it is serious. But we do what we do. We are being as funny as we can be about this subject. And the Jews have always done that. We’re punching up. This is our weapon.
So much has been written about Jewish Humor. Dave, what is Presbyterian Humor?
DB: The joke is on the surface. You know what you are laughing about. With Jewish humor, there is the underlying feeling of despair, we’re screwed, this won’t end well — but we’ll still make a joke! — but we know more than the joke is saying.
I’m Irish, and Irish humor or English humor doesn’t have that second layer so much. Jewish humor is a whole worldview; a people who have dealt with a lot of adversity.
AZ: I agree. There’s more below the water line. Dave and Adam and I agree in this, the wellspring is getting kicked out of nations and —
DB: Wait, but listen, I must stress — I must stress that we Presbyterians have suffered along the way, too. There have been a number of important golf tournaments that we didn’t do well in. And you don’t hear us bitching about it all the time.
AZ: No, I remember the time one of your great golfers forgot their pastel pants.
DB: You don’t hear us crying about it!
AZ: This is why you have never had a bowel movement bigger than a nickel. You have to let it out. Relax. Go with the body.
You’ve done two books now. Good things come in three. Abraham, Isaac and the Other One. Is there a potential trilogy?
AZ: A pamphlet maybe.
DB: Absolutely a third one, but we wouldn’t involve Alan, so don’t mention it to him now.
Personally, Dave, what you’ve just told me about golf tournaments is fascinating, I would love to know more about these Gentiles. I know they are out there somewhere.
DB: They’re out there! They are the ones going to the plays that Jewish people write, and listening to songs Jewish people write. We are your audience.
Alan, I don’t get you on the phone every day, so I do want to ask you about Saturday Night Live. I know you’ve been asked every question there is to ask about the early days, but allow me to add to that.
AZ: Oh, yay.
Looking back, it’s wild to see the tremendous pairings of guest and musical guest — some truly unbelievable combinations. So I want to ask about the night where Milton Berle was the guest with, of all people, Ornette Coleman.
AZ: I knew you were going to say that. As soon as you said “pairing.”
DB: Milton Berle was on the show?
AZ: Listen, anyone who was on the show at the time would tell you that was the worst week of our lives.
DB: Uncle Miltie wasn’t fun to work with?
AZ: Oh, God! I mean, on paper, it was poetic. Here was the King of Television from his era. Everyone stopped to watch his show, now it’s a generation later, same network, there was some poetry there. The minute he got there it was… it was just an older kind of humor. He would stop sketches in the middle, look to the camera, and make a joke to the audience, so it ruined any reality we set up in the sketch.
I remember he was rehearsing his opening monologue, talking to camera, with an empty studio, and he said to the director, “When I get to this word I want you to make a sound effect of a crowbar falling and landing on the floor of the studio.” We said “Why?” and he said, “At that point I am going to ad-lib ‘Oh, NBC dropped another one.’”
He was planning to ad-lib. We had the greatest comics of the time surprising each other, being creative with one another and he was planting ad-libs in there.
DB: He was showing you how it was done!
AZ: Yeah, that’s what it was. “What do you know, Sonny, I was doing this before you were born!” he said to some members of the crew. It was dreadful.
But to have him and Ornette Coleman? What a mismatch! Well, maybe there was something cool to that, in a way. But I’m sure Milton never heard of Ornette Coleman.
DB: Just so you know, Ornette Coleman is opening for us on this book tour.
Other combos you had that were odd: Julian Bond and Tom Waits.
AZ: Nah, that makes sense.
And Walter Matthau with no one.
AZ: I didn’t realize that. Walter was great. Al Franken wrote a great sketch, a parody of “The Bad News Bears” but with bees, and the bed was squeaking because the bees were jerking off, but they called it “buzzing off,” it was a bee masturbation joke that Al Franken wrote.
I can’t imagine having a follow-up question to that.
“A Field Guide to the Jewish People: Who They Are, Where They Come From, What To Feed Them… and Much More. Maybe Too Much More” is in bookstores now.